Bringing Light to the Darkness of Human Trafficking (Trafficking in Persons)

"Taylor" shared her terrifying story about being a sex slave as a warning to other teenagers.(Photo: WFAA)


DALLAS – For "Taylor," it all began outside a bus station in downtown Dallas three years ago. She was 15 at the time, and running away from home.

She'd never heard the term "sex trafficking," and thought forced prostitution was something that "happened on TV shows."

While many perceive most sex trafficking victims as foreigners brought into the United States illegally, as many as 100,000 children are victims of sex trafficking in this country each year, according to some estimates.

It is — for the most part — home-grown forced prostitution, perpetrated by pimps, and fueled by people who pay for sex.

The entry age for sex trafficking in the United States is between 13 and 15, according to federal prosecutors.

"Taylor" shares her horror story as a warning for other teens who are thinking about running away from home. Byron Harris / News 8 Investigates

"He asked me what my name was and what I was doing, and I told him," she said. "I told him I was a runaway. I told him there was probably nobody looking for me. I told him how old I was."

A photo of Taylor at the time reveals an innocent blonde teenager from the Dallas suburbs.

Pimps can spot vulnerable kids at malls, train stations, and on Facebook, where teens post transparent comments about what's going on in their lives.

"They take advantage of people who are at their weakest moments," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Cara Pierce.

She has prosecuted 20 sex-trafficking cases in North Texas, and considers bringing the pimps to justice and rehabilitating their victims as a calling.

Dereck Johnson is serving a 15-year sentence after being convicted of sex trafficking involving a minor child. (Photo: WFAA)

Dereck Johnson, 31, seemed friendly when Taylor first started talking to him that

day at the bus station. He had a teardrop tattooed under one eye, but his dark demeanor appealed to the rebellion Taylor was feeling at the time. When she told him she was a runaway, had little money, and that her cell phone wasn't working, Johnson realized she was a "freebie" — ripe for the picking, she now realizes.

"A lot of times," Taylor told News 8, "teenagers just want somebody to listen to their problems, and that's what I was doing. I was telling him my problems."

Once Johnson had Taylor's confidence, he talked her into going around the corner from the bus station and into the car of a friend he had called.

"I didn't realize there was trafficking or anything like that," she said. "I just realized I was scared."

Johnson and his friend took Taylor to a house and sexually assaulted her. Then, Johnson took her to a truck stop outside Dallas.

"In Dereck Johnson's case, he purposely brought our victim to a truck stop knowing there were going to be lots of customers there," Pierce said. "And then he forced her to engage in this, and kept the money from it."

Trucks stops, Pierce said, can be "hotbeds" of prostitution.

"There's a lot of commercial sex that happens at truck stops," she said.

"I had no idea what was really going on until later on," Taylor told News 8. "And then I got scared. And hopeless."

She was hopeless because her cell phone — her only link to the outside world, as she saw it — was out of minutes. She depended on Johnson to take her somewhere where she could call her parents.

The smartphone in the palm of a potential sex customer is also the primary enabler of trafficking. The Internet — specifically an online classified site called Back Page — has given rise to a sex "catalog" where customers can choose a prostitute by city, looks, and location. Although Taylor never ended up on Back Page, many trafficking victims do.

"Traffickers will post photographs of the girls or women in suggestive clothing and post them, basically, as want ads," Cara Pierce said. "They post them like property."

Pimps treat their victims like property, not only to insure their income stream, but to increase their dominance over them. Pimps — who can be women as well as men — are known to punch their initials into their victims' wrists with thumbtacks, or tattoo their names on them.

"Some of them will actually put barcodes on the girls," Pierce said. "We'll see barcodes on the girl's (lower inside) lips."

From Dallas, Dereck Johnson took Taylor to Houston and another truck stop. Mobility is key. Pimps don't want to get caught, so they will cycle from Dallas to Houston to Amarillo and Midland-Odessa in Texas — wherever the economy is good.

Truck stops are only one venue. More common are hotels, both upscale and low-end. The rooms are rented in the girl's name, or the girl goes to the customer's hotel.

"The customer never sees the pimp," Cara Pierce said. "He thinks it's just this girl, or two girls, or however many he's communicating with. And the pimp is out of sight, even on that transaction. But he's around; he's around to take the money."

The cases are difficult to prosecute, Pierce said. "They try to train the victims not to give any information."

Pimps also tell their victims that their families will be targeted.

"He had threatened me — not only me, but my family — that if I were to get away and tell the cops, then he'd come after me," Taylor said. "He'd come after my family."

She has repressed how many men she was forced to have sex with, but she was a victim for several days.

"That whole time I was with him, his goal was to tear me down. And I got out of it," she told us. "And he was hoping I would be torn down enough to where I couldn't go to the cops, that I couldn't cope with it enough to tell. And I could."

Through a minor miracle, Taylor was able to make one phone call and contact her parents, who came and rescued her. Then, she contacted the police.

Taylor is a much different-looking person than she was when it all began, in both looks (her hair is now dyed black) and personality. She knows her debt to Cara Pierce and a team of specialists who've helped put her on the road to recovery.

She warns other teenagers not to run away.

Taylor often thinks of Dereck Johnson, who's now serving a sentence for sex trafficking of a minor child.

"I just think that for the next 15 years, he can't do what he did to me to anybody else."

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